Clinical Medical Anthropology

The application of medical anthropology to a clinical setting is relevant to me and my goal of becoming a primary care physician.  Medical workers who strive to understand the cultures of the biomedical health system and the individual patients it serves can use this context to provide the most effective healing.  Acknowledging the unique ways in which patients view their health and their lifestyle can help avoid miscommunication and non-compliance, both of which can interfere with treatment.

Even seemingly small issues, like putting medical terminology into lay terms that are more comprehensible or emotionally acceptable for patients, can make a big difference.  For example, the Anthropology in the Clinic article we read this week explained a case study where a young Chinese woman felt alienated by the American medical system when she was diagnosed with a depressive, anxiety disorder.  Mental illness was very stigmatized within her family, and the terminology her doctors used in her diagnosis and treatment made her uncomfortable.  After her doctors were able to understand this, they were better able to communicate with her without using the Western, biomedical terminology that made it difficult for her to accept her condition.

That same article made a powerful case for doctors educating themselves to develop an anthropological background, rather than falling into the current trend of gaining “cultural competency.”  This practice of describing cultural sensitivity as a technical skill that can then be applied to patient cases is often ridden with stereotypes and builds the false expectation that addressing cultural factors can single-handedly solve clinical problems.  Instead, clinicians should train in the principles of ethnography, a much more relevant practice of engaging individuals to empathize with their personal values and viewpoints.  Through this, doctors can strengthen their interpersonal skills to reach out to patients and find out how they experience an illness, what matters most to them, and what stresses weigh down on them.  This can complement doctors’ biomedical training, which can lead to an unintended superior attitude that places technical knowledge above the actual human experience of health and disease.  In a health care system that prides itself on objective and scientific treatment, medical workers need to focus on each patient as a person with individual thoughts, beliefs, and cultural practices.  A healthy doctor-patient relationship with mutual trust and respect can then lead to the truly best healthcare.

Information from: Anthropology in the Clinic: The Problem of Cultural Competency and How to Fix It, Arthur Kleinman and Peter Benson

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